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Amber's Thoughts

Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series



Mystery with Meaning

Sacred Clowns - Tony Hillerman

The beauty of this series is that it’s so much more than a set of detective stories. Hillerman, in his memoir Seldom Disappointed, tells how he first became fascinated by Navajo culture. Wounded toward the end of WWII, he was waiting in a hospital in Europe to be sent home, one of few soldiers were left. He made friends with a fellow patient, Navajo man, who told him about the ceremony his family would arrange for him when he got home, the Enemy Way. Its healing purpose was to bring warriors back into balance and harmony, hozho. Sacred Clowns is a story of people, culture, place, history, love and family, in which the protagonists are Navajo police dealing with three deaths and finding a runaway teenaged boy. The theme underlying all of it is the Navajo way, hozho, the need for it within a person’s soul and within a community.


Officer Jim Chee is a strongly traditional young man, which brings him into inner conflict as a policeman, and as a man who has to live in the modern world. His values lead him to support an environmental cause, to seek advice from tribal elders on his hope to marry a woman of uncertain clan history, and to take the Navajo way of handling a difficult case that he solves.


This book is gentle for a murder mystery. The violence takes place offstage, and neither Leaphorn or Chee is involved in any life-threatening situation during the course of their detective work. The process of solving the crimes is compelling without that. The private lives of both men are also central to the story, as they get closer to the women in their lives—a poignant transition for the widower Leaphorn.


Hillerman the master craftsman fascinates me. He wraps up a plot thread concerning a missing half-Navajo half-Tano Pueblo boy with a conversation between the boy’s grandmother and Joe Leaphorn, before Leaphorn finally gets the boy to talk. The grandmother’s words are elided with the line “Leaphorn listened,” every time, and then he explains the next thing to the grandmother. Perfect in both rhythm and content. Her words aren’t needed. His reassurances are enough, and those words, Leaphorn listened, repeated in that way, say so much about his character.


Hillerman’s choice to create a fictitious Pueblo makes sense. I once heard Taos musician Robert Mirabal say that secret and sacred, to the Pueblo people, mean the same thing. Hillerman respects that. He sets part of the story at his fictitious Tano Pueblo, so that a murder doesn’t take place during a community religious ceremony at a real place. The description of this Pueblo and its people is perfect nonetheless, one of his many living and vivid New Mexico moments.  These lines stood out for me, as a New Mexican who knows the setting well. “She led them across the hard-packed yard toward an adobe. It slouched under an immense cottonwood which looked almost as old as the building. A fringe of ragweeds and Russian thistle growing on its dirt roof gave it a disreputable, unshaven appearance. But the paint on the window frames was a fresh turquoise blue and geraniums were blooming in boxes beside the door.” Been there, seen that. Loved it.


I read this book many years ago, and it’s as good now as it was then—somehow, even better a second time.